What is Olecranon Bursitis?

When we stop and think of our bodies, there are common areas where problems may occur. With our bones and joints, it could be our hips, knees, or our backs. These are mainly issues due to the aging process. Yet we can also have problems with our smaller joints, not always due to aging but perhaps from an injury or trauma.

If you’ve noticed your elbows are red or swollen, it could be a sign that you have elbow (olecranon) bursitis. Bursitis refers to inflammation of a part of the body called a bursa, which is a small jelly-like sac. Bursitis is common in the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee and heel. They contain a small amount of lubricating fluid that allows the soft tissues to move freely over the underlying bone.

Elbow bursitis occurs in the olecranon bursa that is located at the boney tip of the elbow, known as the olecranon. Normally, the olecranon bursa is flat. If it becomes irritated or inflamed, more fluid will accumulate in the bursa and bursitis will develop.

Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis

Swelling:  The first symptom of elbow bursitis is often swelling. The skin on the back of the elbow is loose, which means that a small amount of swelling may not be noticed right away. To present with a red and swollen elbow is very common. 

Pain: As the swelling continues, the bursa begins to stretch, which causes pain. The pain often worsens with direct pressure on the elbow or with bending the elbow. The swelling may grow large enough to restrict elbow motion. You may feel a stiffness in the elbow along with an aching feeling. You may also experience pain whilst attempting any sort of movement.

What causes Elbow Bursitis?

Elbow bursitis can occur for a number of reasons. Often it is due to the amount of stress put on the joint itself.  Leaning on the tip of the elbow for long periods of time on hard surfaces, such as a tabletop, may cause the bursa to swell. People in certain occupations are especially vulnerable, particularly plumbers or heating and air conditioning technicians who have to crawl on their knees in tight spaces and lean on their elbows. Certain athletic activities may also prompt the development of olecranon bursitis, such as long holds of the plank position. Trauma can also be a cause, such as a hard blow to the tip of the elbow can cause the bursa to produce excess fluid and swell.

Non-surgical Treatment

Bursitis will often settle by itself over time, and there are several ways to encourage this healing process:

  • Elbow pads: an elbow pad may be used to cushion your elbow.
  • Activity changes: avoid activities that cause direct pressure to the swollen elbow.
  • Medications: pain relievers, like ibuprofen, can be used to ease symptoms like inflammation, swelling and pain.
  • Cortisone injection: fluid can be aspirated, or removed from the swollen bursa and then injected with corticosteroid medication, which can work well to relieve pain and swelling.

Surgical Treatment

If nonsurgical treatments do not work, surgery may be recommended to remove the bursa, which is usually performed as an outpatient procedure. It is a small operation whereby an incision is done over the tip of the elbow then the thickened sac is carefully removed. Recovery is normally very straightforward, with restrictions on arm movement for several weeks.

Raleigh Orthopaedic’s combined expertise covers many areas of the orthopaedic field. Our orthopedic elbow doctors are recognized experts in providing evaluation and treatment for a variety of elbow injuries and conditions. Raleigh Orthopaedic Clinic has six convenient locations:

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